Field Test: Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro

This manual focus lens allows for extreme close-ups!


Maybe you've been playing around with macro photography, either with a dedicated 1:2 or 1:1 prime macro, or with a zoom lens that close focuses to about 1:3 magnification. Maybe you've even experimented with extension tubes or magnification filters to get even more macro action through your viewfinder.

But if you want to get even more extreme closeups, there's one lens that's probably the ultimate macro lens: the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro ($829, street). Don't get confused by the name. This is a constant f/2.8 lens, but the magnification runs from 1:1 to 5:1. (1:1 will capture 1 millimeter as 1mm on the sensor. 5:1 will capture that 1mm as 5mm on the sensor plane -- we're talking extreme, here!)

Unlike your plain-vanilla macros that can double as workaday portrait and landscape glass, the Canon MP-E 65mm lens is a lens dedicated solely and wholly to macro photography. Unlike other macro lenses, you cannot focus this lens beyond the maximum distance of 4 inches. So while it is truly a one-trick pony, it's really one impressive specialized lens.

The main reason to use this lens is the MP-E 65mm's variable magnification ratio and extremely close working distances. A standard macro lens will have a working distance (the distance from the front element to subject) in the neighborhood of 6-8 inches and a life-size magnification ratio (1:1). The MP-E 65mm's variable magnification ratio ranges from life-size to five times life-size (5:1). The working distance of this lens decreases as you progress your way up the magnification ratio, starting at 4 inches at 1:1 and ending up at 1.6 inches at 5:1. To put it another way: The MP-E65mm will only be in focus at these focal lengths. You cannot have 5:1 magnification at a distance of 8 inches. If you want 5:1 magnification, your subject must be 1.6 inches from the lens.

The short working distances can be frustrating at first and the difficulty is amplified by that small front element. While the front of the lens barrel is 58mm in diameter, the front element is approximately 20mm in diameter (roughly nickel-sized). You truly have to have your subject centered in the front of the lens and it is easy to misdirect the lens towards your subject. After having many of my subjects fly, crawl or hop away before I could get them framed in the viewfinder, I found it easier to locate the subject at the 1:1 setting and zoom to the desired magnification.

Other ways to go beyond Life-sized• Extension tubes can boost magnification by increasing the distance between the lens and the sensor plane. These are available for all brands of cameras and lenses. • A 1.4x or 2x converter can be stacked on a 1:1 macro lens, and will increase your magnification to 1.4:1 and 2:1, respectively. • Diopters and close-up filters can be added to the front of any lens to increase magnification, although image quality may decline.

Technically, this is a manual focus lens, insofar as there's no motor drive to be found, but that term is a little deceiving. Standard manual focus lenses have a focus ring that you turn to adjust your focus. This is not the case with the MP-E 65mm. The adjustment ring on the MP-E 65mm is used to set your magnification and you move your camera to adjust or fine-tune the focus. In a roundabout way, you can fine tune the focus by turning the lens ring but in doing so, you affect the magnification ratio. In some cases this won't make any difference in the appearance (can you tell the difference between 4:1 and 3.75:1 magnification at a quick glance?) but I found it easier to fine tune the focus by moving the camera. If you are serious about this lens, you should consider a set of rails for ultra-fine distance adjustments.

This lens can be used unsupported but when you venture beyond 3:1 magnification, the camera movement is dramatically amplified and a sturdy tripod is highly recommended. Because of the short distances and higher magnifications, depth of field is ridiculously shallow and extremely sensitive to the slightest movement. For example, at 5:1 magnification, Depth of Field is approximately .05mm and it only takes moving the lens a literal hair to shift your depth of field, knocking the subject out of focus!

The MP-E 65mm is compatible with most ring flashes. However, when shooting above the 4:1 settings, I found the ring flash over-shoots the subject. For the higher magnifications, a macro twin flash system such as Canon's MT-14ex is probably a better idea, so you can turn the flash heads more inward towards the front of the lens to better light your subject. The ring flash also makes the closer focusing distances difficult to achieve simply because the flash extends the length of the lens about one inch. You may also want to check out the macro spotlight technique shown here.

Images are sharp and well saturated with color. The lens is bright through the viewfinder at 1:1, but as you increase magnification, the viewfinder image darkens noticeably. This is partially due to the simple fact that the front of the lens may shade the subject but it is also due to the bellows factor of the lens. The farther the distance the front element of the lens is from the film/sensor plane, the dimmer the light transmission. While your camera metering will compensate for this loss of light to obtain the proper exposure, there is no compensation through the viewfinder.

We field tested both outdoors and in a studio environment. After getting used to the handling of this lens, shooting from 3:1 or less is very doable in the field. Moving beyond 3:1 feels more appropriate for controlled environments such a studio shots -- though hardcore shooters will probably be willing to take it to 5:1 on location.

The magnification of this lens pulls you into your subjects, increasing and revealing the smallest of details. When you first start shooting images at life-size magnification you feel as if you've discovered a new world. The same can be said when you go beyond life-size! It may sound strange but once you get used to shooting at the higher magnifications, you'll begin to get frustrated because the view of your subject is blocked by a flower's anther (the individual filament of the pistil). The MP-E 65mm brings a hidden world to light, and the rewards pay off for the tough learning curve!


This lens definitely takes getting used to and it isn't for beginners. The sensitivity of the focus and depth of field of the MP-E 65mm can be frustrating for even seasoned macro photographers who are comfortable at 1:1 or even 2:1 with extension tubes. Once you learn macro photography with any of the quality 1:1 lenses on the market, work your way up to the MP-E 65mm (possibly experimenting with extension tubes/converters along the way). The greater working distances, less sensitive focus, and more forgiving depth of field makes such a lens easier to learn with. But once you get comfortable with life-size magnification the MP-E 65mm is an excellent way to expand your macro capabilities.

For the hardcore macro shooters, the Canon MP-E 65mm f2.8 1-5x Macro is one heck of a lens. It is a sharp, well built lens and it is matched by no other lens on the market. It is the only stand-alone consumer lens capable of going from life-size to five times life-size magnification. While there are other ways shoot beyond life-size magnification, it is tough to compete with the convenience and unbelievable magnification range of the MP-E 65mm. The MP-E 65mm is not a starter lens by any stretch but if you have experience with macro and are looking to expand your horizons, this lens comes highly recommended.